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The College Entrance Essay: What Not to Do



What’s the point of the essay?

Put yourself in the admissions officers’ shoes. They’ve got hundreds, maybe thousands of data sets to review, one for each potential student. Imagine the big conference table where these folders are spread out under the fluorescent lights. You’re just one folder in a pile, and the essay is their one window into who you are.


What about the rest of my application?

Sure, grades show you can study and that you care about academic success; test scores show something of critical thinking skills; extracurriculars and volunteer work show you’re “well-rounded.” But everyone knows that these things, for most college-bound students, are standard. People have been telling you they’re “important for college” since you were in 8th grade, and admissions officers know that. So there’s a limited amount even a 4.0 GPA and a perfect score on the SAT can say about your readiness for many aspects of college.



College isn’t high school 2.0

See, college isn’t just classes and parties; it’s a transition between childhood and adulthood. Plenty of kids with high GPAs and great test scores can have a hard time in college due to the lack of supervision and the less defined reward structure. In other words, high schoolers with determined parents can be coaxed or bribed into hundreds of hours of AP studying, varsity sports practice and all kinds of SAT prep. Those kids might build great applications that get them the acceptance letters they want. But none of that stuff will help them once they’re on campus.

In addition to possessing academic prowess, students who get the most out of college know what they want and are willing to work for it. They are mature, self-motivated, curious, and able to think outside the box. In short, they’re (mostly) ready to be responsible adults.


Why do different schools have different prompts?

Different schools are looking for different variations on this ready-for-adulthood theme; Juilliard wants students who apply this maturity and determination to their art. Tiny liberal arts schools want students who will bring their passions to enriching the community on campus. Ivies want students who are clearly head and shoulders above their peers.

But all colleges want students who, as alumni, will enhance their alma mater’s reputation, whatever it may be. And the admissions essay is unique in its ability to convey much of the information that could convince a school you’ll be able to handle the job of succeeding, not just in school, but in life. To that end, here are our top 3 tips on what not to write in your college admissions essay.


#1: Don’t write about the easiest thing

High schoolers have a bad reputation for being shallow. Adults tend to think of them as Facebook-obsessed, smartphone-dependent text-monsters who do whatever (and only) what their friends do. Along with these charming characteristics, teenagers are also seen as closed minded and self-obsessed. The essay is a chance to prove definitively that you are not one of these teenage whiners who thinks only of themselves, and one way to do that is to really put some thought into your topic.

In other words, don’t write about the first thing you think of, or the thing you think you could most easily tailor to the prompt. Let’s look at an example: one of the 2014-2015 Common Application essay prompts is, “Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure.  How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?”

If you ask the average high schooler this question, some of the most common answers will be not making the team, not getting a desired grade, or losing the student government election. These are easy kinds of failure to talk about; they are the most obvious. But you want to show that you understand all the things failure can mean: disappointing someone you love, doing something you know is wrong, giving up when you could’ve persevered. Some kinds of failure are painful to think about, but hiding from painful feelings is exactly what teenagers are expected to do. Be unexpected. Think about the prompt from multiple perspectives and try to make it your own.


#2: Don’t write about something lots of kids have done

This one might seem obvious, but let’s examine it using another prompt from the current Common App: “Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.” Again, do not write about the most obvious things: graduating to Eagle Scouts, your Bar Mitzvah or your first job (unless you have an amazing twist on those old tales).

Even events that may seem less common than the ones above aren’t: thousands of kids each year write essays about their mission trips, their parents’ divorces, and moving to new towns or schools. Maybe it seems like nobody at your school has done it, but that doesn’t mean kids at other schools all over the country aren’t doing it right now. Do a little research, give it some thought, and reach for an essay that will make the admissions counselors think, “oh, right, that’s the kid who was in the circus for a year.”


#3: Don’t write about something that happened to you, write about something you did

This one is less about your topic and more about the way you frame it. Let’s examine it using another Common App prompt: “Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content.  What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?”

This might seem like an impossible prompt to answer with something you do, and that’s why I chose it. When most people think of the word ‘content,’ they think of relaxing or lounging in a private space. But content actually means “in a state of peaceful happiness,” or “satisfied with a certain level of achievement, good fortune, etc., and not wishing for more.” Peaceful, here, doesn’t mean restful: it means untroubled, complete. This state can easily be attained through doing.

See, they don’t really care about the place or environment you’re describing. They care about how your answer reflects your personality, maturity, and ability to think and write creatively. Note the question “What do you do or experience there?”

So while a ton of students will answer this prompt with “my bedroom,” or “the hammock in the garden,” they’re losing ground by not considering the other varieties of contentment: a strong tennis player practicing forehands, a musician picking out strings for his guitar, a volunteer working with infants in the hospital nursery. Don’t worry about seeming weird or being wrong; the point isn’t to “do it right,” as it is in so many high school courses. The point is to communicate something unique and deep about yourself.


#4: Consider the Bigger Picture

The essay is only one part of the college application.  Other parts include your GPA, extracurricular activities, and SAT / ACT score.  If you're late in junior year or already in senior year though, you don't have too much leverage to increase your GPA and activities -- those have already been set by your high school career.

The only two things you can affect at this point would be the essay, which you should write well, and your SAT / ACT score.  Be sure to ensure your SAT score is good enough or ACT score is good enough.  If not, seriously consider retaking it, as even a couple of weeks of study can boost your admissions chances a lot.

For more information on admissions essays, see these resources:

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Laura Registrato
About the Author

Laura has over a decade of teaching experience at leading universities and scored a perfect score on the SAT.

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